Reconnecting as Church: Timeless strategies and bowling a beamer
Some questions feel larger than others. A few weeks ago, I was invited to respond to the following behemoth: “How should churches journey with folks who are hurting due to the covid pandemic as they begin to gather again?” What a question! What an opportunity! To respond, I’ll provide a little background, outline a handful of timeless strategies, and bowl an out-and-out beamer!
Let’s start with some givens. At a nationwide level we know that a great deal has changed in New Zealand since the first covid lockdown in March 2020. Multitudes of people have found the last two years extremely challenging. Debilitating anxiety, depression, exhaustion, hurt, and losses are now endemic. At a congregational level many of us have been apart from one another for lengthy periods of time. While absence on one side makes the heart grow fonder, it can also lead to apathy, rumination, accusations, and heartache. Parishioners’ different opinions over issues like the vaccination question and the performance of their pastors and churches have also fuelled divisions and distress during this season.
I’m not surprised that so much carnage has stemmed from the covid pandemic. Who saw it coming? Who was prepared? Most of us were put on the back foot from day one and have been largely scrambling, complying, reacting, and fudging it ever since. How challenging this must have been for pastors and persons in leadership roles. I’m also not surprised that godly, intelligent, and well-read people have arrived at opposing views. This is because the way we see and interpret life is shaped by a multitude of factors such as our unique histories, contexts, beliefs, experiences, personalities, families, epistemological sources, biases, and idiosyncratic relationships with God.
So, how might we respond? Dallas Willard asserts that the “overarching biblical command is to love, and the first act of love is always the giving of attention.” Designated caregivers can assist the injured as they return to church by listening to their stories and pain. They could also systematically contact persons who haven’t returned to church and ask to meet up and listen to their stories. We need to start where people are at. To be heard is to be loved. To be the recipient of the loving focus of another can be akin to encountering the divine. It’s not difficult to envisage the good that could flow from these actions. However, where listening and attention do not bring about healing, caregivers may assist folks to grieve their losses, explore the concept of forgiveness, and/or accept what can’t be changed. Clearly, these kinds of processes don’t take place over night.
Similarly, churchgoers with a pastoral bent may assist the injured in their midst to work towards peace and reconciliation in their fractured relationships. This might entail facilitating safe forums where hurting parishioners can share their opinions and listen to other people’s perspectives. The purpose of these exchanges is not to win an argument, but rather to give wounded individuals an opportunity to voice their thoughts, broaden their horizons, develop empathy, and experience healing and connections. In this process, congregants will sometimes discover that beneath their differences is common ground. For example, many pro- and anti-vaccination persons have taken their stands due to their genuine concern for people’s health and safety. Connections can be built after listening to one another and on foundations of good intent.
Churches can also promote healing and nourishing relations by providing parishioners with opportunities to serve together. Labouring shoulder to shoulder with (even estranged) others in the pursuit of a greater goal can be remarkably therapeutic and connecting. It can also extend the kingdom of God.
Preachers have a vitally important role to play in supporting and growing strategies of this ilk. For instance, they can enhance associations amongst parishioners by expounding on the fact that each one of us comprises part of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 1:27) and we’re all created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Preachers can also promote healing by pointing people to Jesus’ example of managing acute hurt and pain. Jesus achieved this by giving God his feelings (i.e., his sorrow), his desires (“Take the cup, if it is possible”), and his trust (“If it’s not possible for this cup to be taken from me, may your will be done”) (Mt. 26: 36-46). Jesus and the scriptures truly are limitless treasure troves that preachers can draw from.
To stimulate my thinking further, I confronted five close friends who had gathered for a social meal with the question that was put to me a few weeks ago: “How should the church assist people who have been hurt through the covid pandemic as they return to their houses of worship?” Without so much as the blinking of an eye, my friends declared: “Leaders must lead. They daren’t let congregants, denominational heads, or the government dictate to them what ought to be done.” “Truth must be stated. We mustn’t sweep what’s happened under the carpet. There’s no possibility of reconnection without truth.” “God is doing a new thing. We’ve got to learn what that is and get onboard with God.” “The Bible ought to be preached. The last thing we need is more TED talks masquerading as sermons.” And twenty minutes after the deluge had dried up, one person added between mouthfuls, “Whoever came up with that question has heard God’s heart. It’s a great question.”
One way of interpreting my friends’ impassioned retorts is to recognise that God is doing something new. Crises give rise to opportunities and oftentimes can be interpreted as wakeup calls. To revert exclusively to the status quo after all we’ve been through—especially if we can’t say with total conviction that God has told us to do so—would be a tragedy. We also need to understand that pressures from virtually every quarter will try to pull us back to what we were doing pre-covid.
This raises important questions: “What is God doing (or wanting to do) in your, in my, faith community?” “What have we learned in these past few years?” “What should we be putting in place before the next crisis hits?” “What relationships should we invest into while we have time?”
Since our contexts are different, I think we all need to pause and seek God for guidance, clarity, and courage. I think we all are obliged to pore over the scriptures with people from our own churches to learn what God is saying. Prophets’ messages need to be heeded. Prayer and dare I say it, fasting, should be our bread and butter in such a time as this. Many of us need to awaken, go deeper, prioritise God’s word and words, declutter, become less worldly, reorientate, and become more focused. If we were to do this, we would serve the hurting who are returning to church and many more besides.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 210.
 Adapted from John Mark Comer’s remarkable sermon on Gethsemane. See https://bridgetown.church/teaching/gospel-of-matthew/gethsemane-prayer-2/
 They all asked me to include their comments in my article.